It’s easy in a highly competitive, results-oriented culture to value intensity in exercise. If an exercise routine isn’t intense or prolonged, sometimes it can feel like it doesn’t have value. We didn’t burn enough calories, build enough strength, or match our usual time. Even in yoga, we can feel like we didn’t push ourselves hard enough, or didn’t feel grounded enough, or, if it’s our home routine, we may have pushed ourselves less than we would have in the studio.
I’m guilty of this for sure. Anything less than a full, 110% routine can feel insufficient. And while exercise is almost necessarily a matter of exerting effort that pushes the body beyond its usual activity, the extent to which we move beyond our typical activity does not need to be extreme, especially if the more moderate activity is consistent. Whether we are talking about physical prowess or mental/spiritual focus, there are at least two good reasons to value consistency in practice over intensity.
Less is More
Yoga is ideally a practice of awareness and inquiry. We learn to hold our limbs in just such a way, to coordinate our breath with movement, and to remain calm and poised, even in a challenging posture. But if a posture is too challenging or we prolong our exercise beyond the limits of our stamina, our ability to remain aware and mindful declines. Form becomes harder to maintain, focus drifts, and calmness becomes tension and aversion. Worse, we can sometimes injure ourselves because we aren’t aware that we’ve reached a breaking point. A yoga routine that is particularly intense, in other words, can actually detract from the goals of yoga, just as running or lifting weights with poor form can actually stymie an athlete’s progress.
Our yoga teachers are generally good about reminding us to breathe, but are we bringing awareness to our breath so that it is measured, calm, and gentle? If not, it might be because we are exceeding our capacity for awareness and control. For that matter, if we are feeling ungrounded and out-of-balance, can we accept that and not try to “force” ourselves to be calm and steady? Our capacity to be grounded also has limits. Can we be OK with feeling a bit topsy-turvy, even though we are “supposed to be relaxed”?
It’s a radical notion, but whether it’s the demands we put on ourselves physically or the expectations we have about settling and relaxing, in each case, less is often more. The drive to advance, succeed, and excel is, in time, far less important than the ability to appreciate what we have, understand what is sustainable, and appreciate our limits in the present moment. This allows us to develop or maintain ourselves in a way that is realistic and sustainable.
Keep the Pot on “Simmer”
One of the other paradoxes about the belief that we must work intensely at yoga (or other forms of exercise) is that we feel that if we don’t have a full hour to practice, or if we are feeling scattered, stressed, or overwhelmed, we shouldn’t even bother with our practice at all. An “all-or-nothing” mentality can develop and we irrationally deprive ourselves of what’s good because it isn’t ideal.
In reality, it’s far more important to do a short routine–even a couple postures–every day than do one long routine at the end of the week, and it’s better to go to one yoga class a week than attend a weekend retreat once a month. Stressors generally don’t take a day off and being able to mitigate them on a daily basis leads to a better quality of life. More importantly, weaving yoga into your daily life can make the practice easier to devote more time to when things become less hectic. Like a pot on simmer, the low-level engagement keeps a boiling pot going, and even if it cools a bit, it’s much easier to get it back to a boil if the water is already warm.
Intensity isn’t “Bad,” Inconsistency isn’t “Failure”
Of course, a thorough, intense yoga session can be very rewarding, and it’s deceptively hard to remain consistent. Even so, it’s good to be able to re-frame our attitudes about exercise so that it can fit into our lives in a more consistent way more of the time, and to not be dismissive of less intense or less focused work. Modulating intensity to appropriate levels and remaining as consistent as possible optimizes what yoga offers us and allows us to get the most out of our practice over time.